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When Takuji Yamashita left Japan in 1893 to seek his fortune in America, he promised his parents he would “walk the path of honor.” He kept his word — even when America failed him. A brilliant scholar, Yamashita graduated from the University of Washington Law School in 1902. But the Washington state Supreme Court blocked Yamashita from joining the bar because of his race. Nearly a century later, the Washington high court will do justice by Yamashita. On Thursday, it will to admit him to the bar posthumously. “He believed in the American dream, maybe more than a lot of Americans did at the time,” says Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. “He is a pioneer of civil rights.” Yamashita left Japan at 18, writing, “Even if some rulers do not act like good rulers, I shall act as a faithful servant.” He learned English quickly and sailed through Tacoma, Wash., High School in two years. He worked 10-hour days in a restaurant while studying law, and passed the bar exam with a performance The Seattle Times called “highly creditable.” But he couldn’t escape the racism of the time. State law said only citizens could practice law, and in 1902 Asian-born residents could not become citizens. At 27, Yamashita argued his own case before the state supreme court. The court ruled against him. Numerous precedents excluding Asians from citizenship, the court wrote, “express a settled national will.” Denied his chance to practice law, Yamashita became a successful businessman in Bremerton, across Puget Sound from Seattle. “He just closed the chapter; he didn’t brood over it at all,” says Ron Magden, a historian. When Washington state in 1921 barred Asians from owning or leasing land, the 47-year-old Yamashita challenged that in court, too. “He was told by his teachers that the law was rational, just and fair, and he believed it. That persistence and faith in the law — he must have been a remarkable lawyer,” says Jack Chin, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati who is writing about Yamashita. This time, Yamashita fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court agreed with Washington, again denying Japanese-born residents a chance to become citizens. As precedent, the court cited the 1902 decision blocking Yamashita from becoming a lawyer. Yamashita and his family settled on a farm owned by a front company, where they farmed strawberries, cultivated oysters and won the affection of their white neighbors. If Yamashita was bitter, no one saw it. Most people never knew he had been trained as a lawyer. “He was always smiling and busy,” says former neighbor Carrie Somers LaPoint. Then on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States into World War II, and 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry in the United States were imprisoned or deported. The Yamashitas were given a few days to report to internment camp. They went from house to house in Silverdale, giving away whatever they couldn’t carry. Like many other Japanese-American families, the Yamashitas lost everything. Since they could not make payments on taxes or debts while in camp, they lost the house, their businesses and their farm. When they were released from camp, the Yamashitas lived with one of their daughters in Seattle. Yamashita was reduced to working as a housekeeper. The daughter died in 1957 and they returned to Japan, where Yamashita died two years later. Yamashita’s great-grandson, Naoto Kobayashi, 46, will travel to Olympia, Wash., for the supreme court ceremony. “I’m feeling so proud,” says Kobayashi, who teaches Japanese in Manchester, Maine. “I can see he’s smiling big,” he says, imagining his great-grandfather’s reaction. “This is a big, important thing for everyone now, not only the Japanese-American, but everyone.” Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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